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Saturday, December 9, 2023

Costa Rica Bank Theft: Where Have We Heard This Before?

In case you missed it, last week’s biggest story came from the vaults of Banco Nacional. In one of those, ‘Haven’t we heard this before?’ events, it was reported that some 3,200,000,000 colons have gone missing from the vault of the Banco Nacional headquarters in San Jose. That is 160,000 banknotes, each of which bore the number 20,000 (colons).

This massive theft– over 6 million in US dollars, followed the same pattern as so much of the money under the watch of the Costa Rican public sector– one day it was there, and then, gee whiz, the next thing we knew, was that the next day it was gone!

Those are some big numbers. By comparison, the number of people presently in custody for this brazen internal theft is zero. There are five ‘suspects’, all of whom have been suspended with pay from their jobs. It is not as if a sophisticated hacker managed to break the bank’s online security and transfer a set of numbers from the bank into an anonymous crypto currency wallet.

No, this money was in the supposedly secure vault of the central bank, and simply walked out, little by little, a major inside job apparently undetected by surveillance cameras.

The phrase ‘unpunished theft’ is almost a redundancy here. No matter the level, from the petty street criminal who is back on the street the same hour as he was detained for one theft or another, to the connected politico who made a second career of skimming off the top, a slap on the wrist and a promise to never do it again is the norm.

This is not even the first time that Banco Nacional has seen a sizable sum vanish as a result of an inside job. There have been various embezzlements over the years ranging from a few hundred thousand colons to this most recent. This despite the fact that Banco Nacional claims to have ‘’Three Lines of Defense’’ to prevent such actions.

There was an entire article in the Tico media about these so-called lines of defense. It was laughably absurd. The effectiveness of these three lines can best be illustrated by the fact that although this enormous theft just came to light last week, it is believed the actual internal crime was committed sometime prior to August of this year.

A statement was released saying that the disappearance of money was done during a ‘periodic revision’. Last year, Costa Rica elected a new president, one who was perceived as a populist, an outsider, though he had worked briefly for the previous regime. He compared the disappearance to ‘something out of a movie’.

His public comments have been disappointingly brief. Many who voted for him did so in the hope that he would begin dismantling the wall of implicitly approved corruption that permeates the privileged class of the country.

From luxury pensions, to bonus payments, to unpunished sacking of the public coffers, many hope that our current president will do something to make the blatant destroyers of the public trust pay seriously for their crimes. The jury is out at this time, but this is a story worth following. We will see if a change is going to come, or if it is unhappily, business as usual.

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